The Build Cycle Podcast #005 – Fullsteam Brewery’s Sean Lilly Wilson

Sean Lilly Wilson ended up started Fullsteam Brewery not because he was an avid home brewer, but simply because he thought existing laws were silly. Or, more specifically, because those laws prevented him from drinking true-to-style craft beer. After successfully leading the charge to modernize North Carolina’s brewing laws, allowing beers with higher alcohol content, he used those connections and passion to start a “plow to pint” brewery that’s heavy on locally foraged ingredients, supporting local businesses and economies, and making some damn good brew. Now, he’s not just growing the number of beers they brew, but also their infiltration into the local market and beyond NC’s borders.

DISCUSSION TIMELINE

  • 02:45 – How Sean got into craft beer, and then into the beer industry, by starting a political movement called Pop The Cap.
  • 07:55 – The value of a lobbyist is knowing how the sausage is made.
  • 12:10 – Going from political influencer to brewery owner was a circuitous path of figuring out that he really was already working for himself, so why not?
  • 14:15 – Off on a tangent: How he motivated himself to “work from home”.
  • 16:10 – Bootstrapping made it work financially during the early days.
  • 18:25 – You don’t have to be a brewer to start a brewery.
  • 23:00 – Figuring out the rules and regulations.
  • 24:40 – The early days of the brewery, how it’s grown and what makes it a special place in the community.
  • 30:00 – Building goodwill by featuring guest brews, too.
  • 33:15 – Branding with a cool building and on-premise events.
  • 36:05 – Getting started with, you know, actually brewing beer.
  • 39:49 – Variety is a selling point in more ways than one.
  • 42:40 – What were startup costs and where’d the money come from?
  • 44:05 – Where’s the growth coming from?
  • 48:30 – Growth plans, goals and tactics.
  • 57:00 – Why they’re expanding into food service, and how that affects more than just their own business.
  • 1:02:35 – A quick recap of key points.
  • 1:09:15 – Yes, they actually forage the forest floor for ingredients.
  • 1:12:25 – Expansion plans and strategy; should they slow or grow?
Fullsteam Brewery founder Sean Lilly Wilson podcast interview about how he started the company
Sean serves up a (delicious) post-interview beer.

POSTGAME ANALYSIS

Beer is a passion play, and most folks I know who dream of opening a brewery are already making some darn good beer at home. But, the actual brewery owners I know, like Sean, who haven’t ever brewed themselves. Instead, they saw the opportunity to build a brand based around the things they loved and found people who could create the actual product while they focused on the business. Sean’s focus on the marketing and creating a brand that mattered to its customers and community is what helped them establish a foothold and grow quickly.

That strong brand story and activity is key to differentiating them in an increasingly crowded market where sales of one brand are inevitably at the expense of another brand. Your customers need to care, and you need new customers to start caring if you want to grow. You also need to reach those new customers, and by providing an open, welcoming environment at their brewery helps at the local level, and unique ingredients and varieties reaches far beyond their hometown.

Another way to grow is through strategic distribution. Even though they’re allowed to self distribute, which provides higher margins, some larger retail chains (grocers) won’t add another vendor to their system. I ran into this with my energy drink, so working with a larger distributor provides access to the bigger chains. You lose some margin, but volume and reach can expand dramatically. My guess is this is why so many individuals and small brands use Etsy or Amazon…they lose a cut of each sale, but they’re now in front of way more potential customers. The trick, as we discuss, is finding a distributor that cares enough to help grow your brand as it spreads outside of your home territory. The further you spread, the harder and more expensive it can be to reach consumers.

At the heart of Fullsteam’s success is a good product. They could have the coolest bar and brand in the world, but if the beer sucked, people simply wouldn’t come back and retail sales would dry up. Fortunately, they have 14+ beers on tap and they’re all good. Some are really, really good.

Above, Sean (left) watches his team unload a shiny new brewing tank. Below, their current brew setup, which was about to be moved around to make room for the new tanks that arrived that day.

LINKS & RESOURCES

MORE PHOTOS

Their new canning machine, which allows them to can all of their beer themselves. Prior to this, they used a mobile canner service that would come by and can for them. Buying their own machinery not only saves money long term, it also saves time and improves capacity.
Barrels age special, limited release beers.
This door, just to the left of the main entrance, will soon be the door to their “restaurant”. For now, it’s warehousing the empty cans before they get filled.

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